NOTES on Hebrews
11:11-16 (click here for study)
After God called Abraham out of Ur, had promised him he would inherit a new land and produce a great nation, and by a circuitous route had finally brought him to Mamre in Canaan, God visited him again and specifically addressed the question of his receiving an heir.
This promise seemed preposterous to Abraham. He and Sarah were childless. Abraham, in fact, had planned to make his trusted servant Eliezer his heir. But God told him otherwise.
" 'This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir,' he said. (Genesis 15:4) 'Look up at the heavens and count the stars-if indeed you can count themso shall your offspring be.' Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." (v.5-6)
Sarah was barren, and by the time she was past the age of childbearing, she and Abraham had not produced a child. Any offspring born to them would be the product of a miracle of God.
God's promise to Abraham was God's third intervention designed to produce a line of humans who would follow him. His first was his creation of Adam. Adam was the father of the human race. God's commission to him and to Eve was to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. But Adam ultimately failed. He and Eve sinned, and instead of producing a lineage that loved and honored God and lived in his presence, he left the human race a legacy of death. "For since death came through a manFor as in Adam all die" (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
In fact, after God cursed Adam and Eve, "Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living." (Gen. 3:20) Adam bequeathed death to his offspring; Eve is credited with being the mother of the living. Spiritual death came through Adam. Eve is credited with bringing forth offspring who would have spiritual life.
Evil compounded in the early earth so much that God decided to start over. He chose Noah, one man who walked with God among thousands of evil men, and instructed him to build an ark to preserve humanity while God destroyed earth and the marks of evil with a flood.
Starting over didn't solve the problem. Within a few generations human wickedness had become so entrenched that God slowed its progress by confusing people's common language at the Tower of Babel. No longer could they communicate freely or work in unity. They were pitted against each other, divided by language into self-protecting nations.
A third time God started over, but this time he didn't rely on natural human reproduction. He honored Abraham's faith and created a child of a miracle, and this child would be the promise that God could create something out of nothing; he could make new creatures out of natural humans. He could honor any human's faith by creating in him the miracle of eternal life.
Works Without Faith
While Abraham waited for the promised child, he and Sarah became impatient. At Sarah's suggestion, Abraham took Sarah's Egyptian handmaid Hagar as a wife, and she bore him his firstborn son, Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the son of promise. He was the son of Abraham's own work and decision. Because Abraham took control of his situation instead of waiting on God in faith, he did something that created irreversible consequences. The Arab people who descended from Ishmael are, to this day, in conflict with the Jewish people descended from Isaac. Abraham's two eldest sons were always at odds, and their descendants continue their ancestors' fight to this day.
Promise Replaces Law
But God takes even our worst mistakes when we submit to him and redeems them for his purposes. Hagar and Ishmael became the symbols of the law and the old covenant with Israel. Isaac, the son of promise, became the type of all who live by faith in God and his redemption.
God's using Hagar and Ishmael as symbols of old covenant reality, however, did not negate the consequences Abraham had to bear. His faithless act led to his greatest heartache.
Shortly after Hagar discovered she was pregnant, she began to act superior and arrogant to her mistress Sarah. Sarah mistreated Hagar in retaliation, and Hagar ran away. The angel of the Lord found Hagar and told her to go back to Sarah and submit to her. He added, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." (Genesis 16:10) Hagar returned to Abraham's household and bore Ishmael when Abraham was eight-six years old.
Fourteen years later Sarah bore the miracle child, Isaac. When Isaac was weaned Abraham threw a party to honor the occasion, but Sarah noticed that Ishmael mocked Isaac and was unkind to him, and she demanded that Abraham send Ishmael and his mother Hagar away. Abraham was deeply distressed. Ishmael was his eldest son. He loved him. Further, the customs of the day prohibited sending away the son of a servant girl. Such a child had weak status anyway, and sending him away would leave him without any future.
Once again God intervened. "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring." (Genesis 21:12-13)
God made it clear that Ishmael's descendants would not be considered Abraham's official offspring. God had promised Abraham a son, and only the son of promise, the child of a miracle, would qualify as Abraham's official descendants. Only the child of Abraham's faith would receive the promised blessing of God. The child of Abraham's control, of Abraham's own effort, would have to be banished and disinherited.
God did not allow Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, however, before the son of promise was born. Even though Hagar was disrespecting her mistress, the one chosen to bear the promised son, she had to stay and serve her. Hagar and her son were not Abraham's heirs or official family, but they had to stay and serve the household. Abraham had to live with all the complications of his decision to abandon faith and control his own life. He had to live with the "old covenant" until the promise would come. During that time of living with Ishmael, Abraham grew attached to him. He loved him and told God he wished God would bestow his blessing on Ishmael.
God agreed to make Ishmael's descendants many, but he refused to put his promised blessing on any but the child of faith. The child of works would not be so honored.
God would not, however, allow Hagar and Ishmael, the product of Abraham's own work, to leave until the son of promise arrived. The laws of the day stated that sons like Ishmael could not be sent away. Abraham's and Sarah's sin, their faithless decision to control their own lives, created a situation which demanded that they live by the law. They had to honor the law and live with the results of their faithlessness.
When the child of promise arrived, however, God made it clear that even though Isaac was younger, he was the chosen son. The presence of the miracle in Abraham's household made the law obsolete. God told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away and not be distressed about them. Abraham's works would never count in God's eyes; only the results of Abraham's faith in God's promise would last.
God's promise came before Abraham's attempts at control. The promise was present long before Abraham did his own works and became subject to the law. When the promise became incarnate, the law and Abraham's works had to go. Even though it caused Abraham great emotional pain, God insisted that he sent Hagar and her son out of the camp.
Sinai and the New Jerusalem
In Galatians 4 Paul uses Hagar and Sarah to illustrate the old and new covenants.
"One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother." (Gal. 4:24-26)
Hagar represents the Sinai covenant, the Mosaic covenant. Those who live under the old covenant are slaves.
"Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? 'Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son.' Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman." (Gal. 4:28-31)
Like Abraham, we must throw out the bondage of living under the terms of the old covenant. The law given at Sinai was temporary. It was given 430 years after God promised the Seed to Abraham, and it was to last only "until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come." (Gal. 3:19)
Now that the Child of Promise has come, we, like Abraham, must throw out the law and its demands and live by faith in the promise. We are "the son born by the power of the Spirit." (Gal. 4:29) We now live by responding by faith to the Living Law, God himself, who dwells in us. We no longer need an external law to dictate our behavior. People dead in their sins need a law to confront them. When we are alive in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have God, the Law of the Universe, living in us. We answer to the Source, not just to a shadow.
Keeping the Covenant
When God made his eternal covenant with Abraham, he caused Abraham to fall into a stupor and a deep sleep. God himself made the covenant without Abraham's participation. (see Genesis 15:9-11) After Abraham took matters into his own hands and produced Ishmael but about a year before Isaac was born, God came again to Abraham. This time he told him he wanted him to show his loyalty to God by participating in a covenant sign: circumcision. Covenant signs reminded the participants that they owed loyalty to the one who initiated the covenant.
God counted Abraham's faith as righteousness long before Ishmael was born. Ishmael's birth represented a lapse in Abraham's faith, but God did not disown Abraham because of a faithless decision. Abraham had committed himself to God, and he belonged to God. Nevertheless, God wanted Abraham to commit himself visibly to God's covenant with him.
Circumcision was a covenant sign that graphically reminded the Israelites that God had established them as his chosen people, untainted by intermarriage with pagans. It was a sign that God was protecting the Seed of the promise. It was a sign signifying that they were descendants and progenitors of God's promised Seed. It would have meaning only until the Seed would finally come.
Since Jesus came, God's people no longer have to bear the marks of the covenant in their bodies. Jesus now bears the physical marks of the covenant. Christ-followers honor their Lord by participating in the blood of the new covenant and the body of Christ by taking communion. Under the new covenant we do not have to mark our bodies or brand ourselves as God's people. We merely have to participate in what Jesus has already done for us.
Circumcision and the Sabbath were signs of the old covenant. Circumcision reminded the Jews that they bore seed set apart by God. The Sabbath reminded them that the promised Seed would bring them rest for their souls. These signs were different from the signs God gave with his other covenants. These signs were temporary and pointed to the coming Promise. When Jesus would finally come, God's people would no longer have to perform covenant signs to prove they were God's people. Jesus would keep the covenant for us, and all we would have to do would be to remember. Our "belongingness" is accomplished by Jesus' faithfulness, not by our performance of signs.
Living by Faith
The people listed in Hebrews 11 lived their entire lives by faith in what they believed was coming: a Child of promise; a Redeemer. They died without ever realizing that for which they hoped. They died as aliens on earth. They died believing in their Redeemer but without seeing the kingdom of heaven among them.
They all considered their true home to be Heaven, a city built by God. By faith they were citizens of the New Jerusalem, the City of God composed of those who accept his shed blood and grace by faith.
God is calling us to throw out the bondwoman in our lives. He is asking us to wait by faith for him to accomplish his promises in our lives. He has given us Abraham as an example of both living and obeying by faith and of what tangled consequences we create when we barge ahead with our own ideas of fulfilling what we believe to be God's will in our lives.
God is asking us to learn to wait in trust. Part of submitting our lives to the redemption of Jesus is learning that we can't hurry God's will. Once we catch a vision of how transforming life in Christ can be, we often try to appropriate by our own cunning all the blessings Christ offers. We want to live in rest, but we don't want to deal with the resistance and demands of the people in our lives. We want to be in God's will, but we don't want to walk through the pain and loss that are inevitable consequences of living. We want to live with peace in our souls, but we don't want to wait and give up controlling our circumstances.
God approaches us now and says, "I have completed everything necessary for your salvation. There is nothing you can do that can improve upon my sacrifice and resurrection. You cannot even prove your love to me by deciding to makes sacrifices or by deciding to do things for me. The only way you can experience my completed work for you by give up your plans and your good ideas and your fears and your dread of the future and opening your carefully guarded heart to me."
God is asking us to give up controlling the outcomes of our lives, and he's also asking us to give up slipping into numbing denial. Neither of these allows us to experience God's miracle of rest. Jesus is asking us to admit our pride and to stand in humility before him, willing to face the shame and the pain of our lives. He's asking us to face the tangled consequences of our own efforts to get what we want. He's asking us not to dissociate from the pain that our heritage of sin brings into our lives.
We will begin to know God's peace and rest in our hearts only when we agree to live in reality, when we admit the depth of our fear and allow ourselves to face and feel the crushing pain in our hearts. We can't know God's healing touch by managing our circumstances or by rationalizing so we don't feel. We can only know His healing when we allow ourselves to face and experience the full reality of our dread and regret and ask God to enter the pain with us.
God won't take away our pain. We can't find relief by sublimating our feelings and refocusing our energy so we ignore what's bothering us.
But God does promise to enter the fear and the dread and the pain with us. He saves us IN our sin and pain and fear; then he offers to help carry the load. We can't know how amazing his love and care are until we stop rationalizing and ask Jesus to enter our embarrassment and anxiety and shame. Only when we fully face our fears that God has forgotten his promises or that life will deceive and crush us can God come to us and give us peace instead of fear.
God can't remove the things we try to avoid. But God will redeem everything we acknowledge and offer to him. Only by being willing to let go of our fear and control and to experience the truth, whatever it is, can God enter our chaos and create calm.
Praise God for not giving up even when we ignored or tried to control Him. Praise Jesus for dying in the agony of sin and for understanding what we experience. Praise the Holy Spirit for bringing light and life into our hearts and for showing us that love and truth transform pain and fear.
Praise God for working out his plans in his own time and for placing eternity in our hearts.
Praise Him for his transforming love.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised July 1, 2001.